Vocabulary Habits

Here’s a conversation from a few days ago regarding lexis and grammar:

“I’m sure if you gave on group of them (the learners) a dictionary and the other a grammar book and sent them to London, the group with the dictionary would come back much more fluent” 

So, if it’s true that a well-developed vocabulary paves the way to fluency, how can we increase the odds of getting there? Certainly, learners bring a heap of bad vocabulary habits to the classroom from their learning experiences, baggage that if not examined and dealt with will obstruct them from reaching their full potential in English. The job of getting things in working order lies in the hands of the teacher.

That’s not to say however the whole process becomes a teacher-centred dictatorial mess. But to shake up the system, change needs to come from the top.


  1. How do you board language?
  2. Which vocabulary do you choose to correct?
  3. How do you drill language?
  4. Do you check how learners keep vocabulary?
  5. Do you test them on vocabulary? Do you recycle vocabulary?
  6. Do your learners know how to use dictionaries and research words?
  7. If you said “this is a verb + noun collocation”, would they know what you mean?

What are your vocabulary teaching habits? Try taking a picture of your board every day. Look at what you put on there. Does it reflect the ideals you’d like learners to hold about language?

Here are some questions I aim to answer in the next few posts:

1. How can you equip learners with the right strategies to find, store and learn vocabulary on their own?

2. Which teaching techniques create an optimum classroom environment for vocabulary acquisition?

3. What are the bad habits our learners have and to what lengths do we go in order to help them?

4. How do you integrate teaching pronunciation into vocabulary teaching? Holistic or not?

5. Recycling, revisiting, testing: is this our job to enforce it or to whip up motivation for learners to do it themselves?

The first topic I’d like to tackle regards vocabulary strategies and I’d love to know how you teach/foster these in YOUR classrooms. 


10 thoughts on “Vocabulary Habits

    • dalecoulter says:

      Some fantastic ideas here. I see your focus is more on YLs. I am relative new to teaching them and ideas like the world wheel and the vocabulary panel are definitely ones I’d like to try.

      Definitely a must this post!

    • dalecoulter says:

      Good contribution. I’ve heard teachers say a few times “I don’t say that, I’m not teaching that” – is that because it’s not frequently occurring or just not so in their mental lexicon? I’m a fan of corpora personally, not for full-blown research projects but checking what you teach is actually common lexis. Yourself?

  1. Adam Simpson says:

    One book I recommend to anyone serious about their teaching of vocab is ‘Vocabulary Myths’ by Keith Folse. Indeed, if you haven’t read that, I’d even recommend doing so before writing this – very interesting looking -series of posts.

    I find it difficult to write anything else at present, for fear of preempting anything you might say. I will return, however!

  2. Leo says:

    Hi Dale,
    Your post has immediately caught my eye because the questions you pose have always interested me. I have taken photos of my messy squiggly boardwork – and even showed them in my talks 🙂 and I believe that it does reflect my views of language and the view I’d like my students to hold. And these are never write single words, collocation is a minimum unit when recording new vocabulary, whole utterance is even better (time permitting).

    Re your question #1 I have tried both lexical notebooks and cards and I think both have obvious benefits and certain disadvantages – I am actually writing an article about it at the moment. Some great ideas on Daniela’s blog! I’ll probably “steal” some (or do we say “borrow” in the blogosphere?) and apply them to teaching chunks.

    Will be looking forward to your posts on the topic of vocabulary. In the meantime, feel free to check out ideas for recycling lexis on my blog.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks for your comment Leo. The questions are ones that have guided my teaching of vocabulary since DELTA. What I read about the lexical approach, and subsequently by Dave Willis and Nattinger and DeCarrico really helped shape my view of language. I hope to upload a lot of photos to demonstrate what I do. Like you, I try and chunk things, starting from collocation level and working up to utterance level. Most vocabulary cards for this reason include an example utterance and I try and train learners to keep utterances they find with vocabulary looked at in class. I’ve found dictionaries work well at low levels and corpora at higher levels to this end.

      I think we say ‘borrow’… makes it sound more supportive and developmental, we’re no thieves 🙂

      I’ll make sure I swing by your blog this weekend to have a look.


  3. phil3wade says:

    How can you equip learners with the right strategies to find, store and learn vocabulary on their own?

    I’ve had to do various lectures on vocab and vocab learning which had been made compulsory. Why? Because when they weren’t nobody went. This showed me that for some students they are not in the right frame of mind ie they are reliant on spoon feeding and who can blame them.

    So, me being a student-centred/autonomous learner kind of guy, I came to the realisation that I had to use a scaffolding approach and slowly remove it. So, in class 1/2 for several years in different places I’ve done lesson chunks on what and how to learn using dictionaries, laptops, websites, cards, you name it and then made ‘vocab feedback’ a part of subsequent lessons I also encourage student choice about what to learn and how. I’ve also built up a class wiki, used personalised online flashcards (part of a schools VLE for each student) but at the moment I’ve been using http://www.englishcentral.com for homework or lead-ins to discussion classes mainly because it has great vocab sections and I think it has recycling stuff for premium membership. Something like that can be done 5 mins a day and it far more interesting than my cards.

    Back to your question. I’ve also started throwing students in at the deep end with texts and listenings and just say “read/listen”. Online ones with ‘double click defs’ work well like VOA. This gets them into the habit of looking up words. I then ask groups to discuss their lists and work on extending what they have. As above, they can be stored on class wikis/pages on better on individual student ‘learning blogs’.

    For learning everyone is different. Some need repeated exposures, some practice, some both or visual prompts. Finding what works for each student is important but I can only help them and give ideas/support it has to be their choice of what to do and how.BUT, I think individual learning goals assessed by a teacher works well.Something as simple as checking their learning journals every week to see what independent study they’ve done.

  4. David Petrie says:

    Hi Dale,
    Somewhat belatedly catching up with a backlog of unread posts…..
    With vocabulary teaching (and learning) I think there are four key stages – Encountering / Recording / Revisiting and Producing that need to be planned for vocabulary learning to be maximised. I wrote a post about this a month or so ago – http://teflgeek.net/2011/12/13/the-twelve-days-of-geekmas-four-recalling-words/ – that goes into a bit more detail on this. let me know what you think!

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